Many members of the Nicolet girls basketball team are not old enough to drive a car. They need to be dropped off and picked up at school or practice. They need a ride to their friends' houses or taxied to the movies Saturday nights.
Yet here the Knights sit, with just days remaining in the regular season, firmly in the driver's seat of the North Shore Conference race.
With a dramatic win over defending champion Grafton on Feb. 10 and an overwhelming, 60-38 win at Milwaukee Lutheran on Feb. 13, Nicolet pulled into a virtual tie with Grafton atop the league standings. Entering this week, the Knights were 10-2 in league play (12-6 overall) with two games remaining while Grafton was 11-2 (17-2) with one contest left.
This has been quite the turnaround for the Knights, who have as many overall victories this season as they had the last two years combined.
"Our sophomore class took a few bumps last year as freshmen," said coach Corey Wolf, in her sixth year with the Knights. "I think it was tough on them, but now they see that all the hard work is starting to turn around a little bit."
Nicolet has just one senior on the roster, starting guard Tory Bauman, and one junior. The remaining nine players are either freshmen or sophomores. You could not fault anyone who felt the team was a conference afterthought, especially with a veteran Grafton squad that boasts star Sarah Eichler and an experienced Homestead unit in the way.
But the Knights grew up in a hurry with a tough nonconference schedule, and those familiar with their talent anticipated an improvement over recent years.
"Having seen them last year, I had them in the top three," Milwaukee Lutheran coach Randy Clinard said. "I'm not really surprised. Their size and their quickness, if you put that together, it makes them tough.
"What I am surprised with is how good they are so young. They are very young, and yet, today it doesn't really matter. I've been doing this for a long time and I've always felt that you need seniors to really lead a team. Obviously they proved you don't need that anymore."
The right mix
The Knights have near-perfect on-court balance. Sophomore Alex Cohen, a 6-foot-4-inch center, anchors the post and leads the team with 12.5 points per game. Around the perimeter are the likes of sophomore Ashley Green, a lightning-quick guard who moves well without the ball and who scored a game-high 17 points in the win over Lutheran; sophomore Gaby Bronson; the senior leader Bauman; and a pair of confident freshmen: Courtney Smith and Brittney Fair, a long-range threat who had 15 points off the bench Friday.
"I still think we're a ways away from our potential, but what I like about this team is we have good pieces to the puzzle," Wolf said. "We have kids that can play defense. We have kids that can rebound. We have kids that can shoot from the outside and kids that can score inside. I think we're a tough match in general. We're not a one-dimensional team, and I think that's what makes us a little different."
The combination has led the Knights to four straight victories since losing to Homestead on Jan. 30, and has put Nicolet in a position to win at least a share of its first league title since it was part of a rare four-way tie for first after the 2005-06 season. The Knights needed to beat Germantown on Feb. 17 and a victory over visiting Whitefish Bay today, Feb. 19, to secure their spot atop the standings.
"You try to do the same things in week 10 as you did in week one," Wolf said. "We really keep our kids focused on the next game. I think our kids have done a pretty good job of that. It will probably be a little bit tougher this week than two weeks ago."
David Cotey can be reached at (262) 446-6604.
The WIAA released its girls basketball postseason pairings this week. Here is a look at Nicolet's first-round matchup:
WHO: Nicolet (12-6) vs. Milwaukee Custer (10-9)
WHAT: WIAA Division 1 regional semifinal
WHEN: 7 p.m., Tuesday, Feb. 24
WHERE: Nicolet High School
LOWDOWN: The Knights are seeded fifth and the Cougars, winners of seven of their last eight entering this week, are seeded 12th … Jennifer Luckett (10.8) and Rhonda Bowers (10.3) are the only two Custer players who average more than 6.7 points per game.
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